On a Sad Feeling

My grandmother’s sense of time has gone out the window. She sleeps during the day, then doesn’t understand why it’s dark at dinner time.

Her understanding of the weather is tricky at best.

She has no idea where she is in relation to North Carolina — she thinks we’re twenty minutes from Rocky Mount, which means we’re a half an hour from Raleigh. In other words, she thinks we’re somewhere near Wilson. Which is where she grew up until she was thrown out on her own at sixteen. (This is a frequent conversation — she can’t understand that it’s an all-weekend-trip to go Raleigh and back.)

She thinks the local Catholic church hauled lots of snow to the backyard, where they’re holding a winter carnival/winter festival sort of thing.

Whether this affects the two girls who live in the trees and swing on vines, I don’t know. Nor do I know whether or not the squirrels with wings are frightened by all this activity.

She’s pretty much stopped eating. It’s nearly impossible to convince her to eat anything for dinner. She’ll eat a slice of toast. Meat? No. Fish? Absolutely not. If asked why she’s not eating, it’s because she had her stomach removed when the doctors removed three of her four kidneys. I don’t think she knows what a kidney is.

And today, she really wasn’t clear on who I was. A distant nephew or something.

Years ago when I was living outside Philly my sister called me one day. “How often do you talk to grandmommy?”

“Oh, at least once a week. And I drive down about twice a month, just to spend the day.”

“Don’t you find her conversations repetitive?”

“You mean how she talks about the same weird anecdotes over and over and over?”

“Exactly.”

“I just tune it out. Have the conversation once, then just reflexively agree.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Hell, I’ve done it for years.”

Watching the mental collapse first-hand I’ve paused to reflect on conversations like that. Has she been like this longer than anyone realized?

When I moved to Raleigh in 2002 she couldn’t understand why it simply wasn’t possible to come to Baltimore with any regularity. She called one day and wanted to know if I’d driven to her house, rang her doorbell in the wee hours of the morning, then driven home. She woke me up with the phone call, and a quick mental calculation showed that I wouldn’t even have been home yet had I done something so completely pointless.

So often she’d say something that almost sounded right. She’d talk about a lake in the neighborhood, and while it sounded odd — girls out boating — there’s a reservoir here, about a mile away. Only once she came back here did anyone realize that what she said was a lake was, in actuality, a field of bamboo.

I’ve stopped thinking about it in terms of a psychological problem and begun thinking of it as a programming program. I know what the inputs are. I know what the outputs are. What algorithm is causing the transmutation of reality into delusion and madness? Were it just memory I could understand. But how can perceptions go so wrong? Doesn’t make it any easier to take.

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